Tag Archives: Avengers

Doctor Strange (2016)

Not quite sure how it is possible that I watched Doctor Strange when it first came out but have been too busy to get around to the review until now. Luckily, I have a good memory when it comes to movies (terrible memory for everything else).

The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was considered a risky one because of the relatively unknown character and all the mystical mumbo jumbo the studio feared could turn people off. Further, it’s directed by Scott Derrickson, whose most notable films up to that point were Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Deliver Us from Evil. And on top of that, some people lost their PC minds and accused Marvel/Disney of whitewashing when Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One.

Of course, all fears were unfounded. This is the Marvel juggernaut we’re talking about! After so many incredibly successful films, Marvel has figured out the winning formula that continues to elude DC. It’s all about fun, excitement, spectacle and giving audiences a great time at the cinema. Doctor Strange is no different.

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as Dr Stephen Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon who is, frankly, a bit of a dick at the start of the movie, especially to his colleague and ex, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Following a devastating accident, Strange embarks on a journey of healing and character development through learning the mystic arts in a place called Kamar-Taj from the Ancient One, a beautifully bald Tilda Swinton. It’s very important, because a traitor by the name of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is hell bent on at wreaking havoc on the world.

Doctor Strange is a great example of how to execute a superhero origins story. You get a clear idea of who the character is at the start of the film and follow them on their journey to becoming who they are destined to be. The technical stuff is explained in a simple and understandable way that doesn’t get bogged down in the details. The training sequences are interesting and packed with out action so as to not be too boring, and our hero isn’t too powerful right out of the gate because he needs room to grow. There are good laughs along the way and the action is creative, inventive and spectacularly choreographed.

What sets Doctor Strange apart from the previous Marvel films is the psychedelic, mesmerising visuals and special effects. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know there’s all that world-folding and morphing stuff that feels like Inception on steroids. And it’s not merely eye-candy either, as the ever-shifting worlds and parallel universes blend in seamlessly with the action and the storyline.

The cast is easily one of the best in the Marvel franchise, with established names and Oscar nominees galore. As I said already, Benedict Cumberbatch was perfectly cast, exuding the initial arrogance and the later shift in his character wonderfully, without taking himself too seriously or coming across as too goofy. Rachel McAdams redeems herself from Southpaw and really adds to her character, while you can never go wrong with Mads Mikkelsen in any role. His villain is admittedly a little weak, as are most Marvel villains, though he does the best he could with the material he’s been given. Stealing the show are Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One (laying to rest some of the whitewashing complaints) and Benedict Wong as…Wong, a master of the mystic arts who protects their secret books and relics. On the other hand, I personally thought Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor overcooked his performance as fellow mystic warrior Karl Mordo. It’s good to show some emotion, but there wasn’t any need for 12 Years a Slave emotion in a Marvel movie.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Doctor Strange, though I certainly wouldn’t put it near the top of the Marvel films to date. Great cast, solid execution, nice action, and a visual feast at times, but nothing really extraordinary to elevate it to the level of the top solo films of the main Avengers (I’m talking Iron Man, Winter Soldier, Civil War, etc). The final confrontation was also somewhat anti-climatic. I’d put Doctor Strange at around the same level as Ant-Man — ie, a second-tier Marvel film but great popcorn fun nonetheless.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: Apparently, Doctor Strange will make an appearance in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

Movie Review: Ant-Man (2015)

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Paul Rudd gives new meaning to the term “shrinkage.”

All things considered, Ant-Man turned out much better than expected. That said, I’d still preach caution against reading too many overly positive reviews.

That’s what happens with expectations sometimes. People were initially lukewarm on Ant-Man, then they were completely down on it, and now they’re really high on it, perhaps even too high on it. My verdict is that it’s a very solid film, a very funny film, one that might fit uncomfortably in the Marvel cinematic universe but offers a great time as an independent movie experience. Its ambitions are so underwhelming that it’s hard to rank it up there among the other Marvel superhits, though I feel it is strong enough to not drag the franchise down and deserves a place in the hierarchy as one of the more different and refreshing efforts.

One of my favourite actors, Paul Rudd, plays Scott Lang, a Robin Hood-type burglar who is offered an opportunity for redemption by becoming Ant-Man, a superhero capable of shrinking himself down to Honey I Shrunk the Kid proportions and control armies of different breeds of ants. I’ve been a fan of Rudd since Clueless — which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year — and never thought he would manage to survive in Hollywood this long (while Alicia Silverstone basically disappeared into obscurity). But here he is, and he’s excellent as Lang, who makes the most of Rudd’s dry personality as well as his underrated acting chops. The understated Rudd doesn’t dominate the film, and I think that’s a good thing because it plays into the whole apologetic feel of Ant-Man as a superhero.

The plot is fairly standard and revolves around the concept of family, in particular father-and-daughter relationships. In this regard the theme is played out brilliantly by Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, who star as scientist Hank Pym and estranged daughter Hope van Dyne, respectively. I hadn’t seen Douglas on screen for a while and I had forgotten what a brilliant actor and screen presence he is. He’s a major reason why the film is as good as it is.

On the villain side, the ubiquitous Corey Stoll (naturally bald this time) is Darren Cross, a former protege of Pym who is close to perfecting a similar shrinking suit called the Yellowjacket. I love Stoll as much as the next heterosexual man, but his character in this is pretty one-dimensional and not particularly memorable. Can’t blame the man for collecting cheques when they keep flooding in, though.

Providing additional comic relief are Michael Pena, recording artist T.I. and David Dastmalchian. Pena in particular is at his blistering best, and those who enjoy his style of comedy will have a blast as he rolls off his awesome “tip montages”. Rudd, confined to being the “hero”, almost takes a back seat to all these supporting characters, and fortunately they make the most of the opportunities.

The special effects are of course cool and there are some innovative ideas when Lang is shrunken down to insect size. The film is often silly and it knows it, and the concept alone provides many inherent chances for laughter. One of its biggest strengths is that it straddles the line between comedy and farce very well so that it doesn’t cheapen this massive and complex universe Marvel has been building up since 2008 when it released the first Iron Man.

And that’s pretty good when you realise that Ant-Man originally had disaster written all over it. An idea for an adaptation of the Marvel comic arose back in the 1980s, though nothing came out of it. Then in 2003, Edgar Wright, best known for his Three Flavours Cornette trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, became the driving force behind the project, even penning a script and participating in the casting process. But last year, Wright dropped out due to the dreaded “creative differences” excuse and the project brought on a new director, Peyton Reed, best known for Bring It On but had turned in three pretty mediocre efforts since (Down With Love, The Break-Up and Yes Man).

So we’re talking multiple re-writes, different fingers in the pie and a last-minute change of director. The general sentiment was that the film, already facing an uphill battle because of its high concept premise, would be a disastrous mess. It also didn’t help that critics were iffy about Paul Rudd, who has carved out an impressive career as a dry comedic actor but had yet to prove that he could carry a leading superhero role from a juggernaut franchise like Marvel.

Accordingly, almost everyone was pleasantly surprised that Ant-Man defied predictions and turned out to be really good. And it is. I liked it a lot. It was probably exactly what Marvel needed after exhausting everyone with one big blockbuster after another featuring more and more superheros and villains whose powers are growing out of control.

Despite many references to the Marvel universe — such as the Avengers and Age of Ultron, not to mention several notable cameos — Ant-Man works well as a standalone flick that isn’t a spoof but also doesn’t take itself as seriously as the other Marvel entries. It’s more self-contained, more self-aware, smaller and neater, and arguably the funniest Marvel superhero movie to date along with Guardians of the Galaxy.

While there are going to be more superhero films combining all of these various strands in the upcoming “Phase Three” of Marvels cinematic universe, which will begin with Captain America: Civil War next year and end with Avengers: The Infinity Wars Part II and Inhumans in 2019, Ant-Man offers fans a much-needed breather from the familiarities of the Marvel money-making machine. It’s not the type of film that will wow you with mindblowing visuals, creativity or action. What if offers instead is good-natured, light-hearted fun that’s as self-deprecating as its lead star, something many audiences might actually prefer as a change of pace to the excesses of the more “marquee” names. Just keep in mind, however, that it is simply a good film that exceeds low expectations rather than something truly extraordinary that shits all over all its more well-known siblings.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I fully recommend this video of Paul Rudd from Conan, which includes an “exclusive” clip from the movie.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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I hadn’t initially planned on watching the latest Marvel entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, which seemed like a strange turn for the multi-billion-dollar film franchise into less grounded, more childish territory with a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree. Word of mouth that reached me all said it was “OK” or “Pretty good,” though I was astounded by the number of positive reviews I saw online, including an incredible 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Considering Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, probably the best movie of the year (let’s face facts here), only got 91% (about 9% too low), I knew it was only right for me to lay down some dough to watch Guardians on the big screen.

My verdict trickles closer to the word-of-mouth reviews I personally encountered, which is that it’s pretty good, definitely better than original expectations (from the time I saw the trailers), but not quite as good as the glowing reviews it’s been receiving. It’s solid popcorn entertainment, plenty of fun, frequently funny and always engaging, though ultimately still a second-tier franchise when ranked among its peers in the Marvel universe.

The core of the story is virtually identical to The Avengers — a bad guy teams up with another bad guy (with resources) to get their hands on a powerful object, and the only people who can stop them is a team of heroes with different strengths and conflicting personalities. The first half introduces the characters as they “get to know each other,” so to speak, and in the second half they learn to work together and become greater than the sum of their parts. Sound familiar?

Instead of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk (plus Black Widow and Hawk Eye), we have Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) — a wise-cracking, smart-aleck human thief abducted by aliens as a child; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) — a green humanoid alien surgically enhanced by her father and the film’s antagonist to be a killing machine; Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista) — a powerful pink humanoid alien with lots of scars/tattoos and bent on revenge; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) — a CGI talking genius raccoon made from lab experiments; and Groot (Vin Diesel) — a CGI tree-like humanoid with lots of special abilities but a limited vocabulary.

It’s not the Avengers, but this bunch is still pretty solid team where each member plays off the others really well. Chris Pratt, all buffed up for the role, is a larrikin whose sole remaining connection to Earth is his cassette walkman and classic mixtapes, a gag the film executes wonderfully without milking it. He’s no slouch, but his main purpose is to play the human character we can connect with and to provide the laughs. Zoe Saldana, having played a blue alien in Avatar, goes green this time, and she’s the straight face of the group, while David Bautista is the hothead/meat-head with a broken heart. What surprised me were Rocket and Groot, both of whom I thought were going to be lame, but instead they probably turned out to be the film’s most likable characters. Considering the overall tone of the film, a talking raccoon and a walking tree didn’t feel out of place at all.

The supporting cast is also formidable — Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan and Djimon Hounsou, with Michael Rooker (Daryl’s hillbilly brother from The Walking Dead) as Star-Lord’s mentor, and The Hobbit elf Lee Pace as the destructive villain, Ronan the Accuser, who is no doubt powerful but somewhat lame because of his typical (boring) motivations.

The best way to describe the film’s general feel is cheeky and exciting. Apart from the introductory sequence, none of the film is based on Earth, meaning it’s all crazy alien business we don’t have to take too seriously. Overall, the film’s laugh quotient isn’t as high as I expected, especially because the humour is sometimes obvious and geared towards younger/dumber audiences. I personally thought there could have been more wit and sharper jokes, though it’s still frequently amusing enough to make the film a fun ride.

The action is varied and visually spectacular — largely thanks to superb special effects we tend to take for granted these days. It’s not quite edge-of-your-seat stuff, though it’s clever, creative and amusing enough to be plenty of fun.  And importantly, it feels as though the action never stops. Even when there’s no fighting there are always people walking, in the forefront or in the background, and if they’re standing still it’s because they’re on a speedy spacecraft. It gives the film a frenetic pace that never seems to slow.

The disadvantage of this film compared to The Avengers is that the characters themselves, as great as they are, don’t generate any excitement. With The Avengers, much of the attraction comes from the concept of putting all these fantastic superheroes together. With Guardians of the Galaxy, however, most viewers outside of hardcore fans won’t know who our heroes are, meaning more time has to be spent building them up from scratch. The Avengers superheroes already have cache entering the film, whereas here they have to earn our trust and affection. On the other hand, the advantage of this set-up is that there are no expectations or baggage. We expected The Avengers to deliver; no one really expected much out of Guardians of the Galaxy, allowing it to pleasantly surprise. Full credit has to go to director James Dunn (who also co-wrote the screenplay) in taking what was probably an experimental franchise — a year before the release of The Avengers 2 — and turning it into such a good-natured, family-oriented hit.

I’ve seen some people write that Guardians of the Galaxy is better than The Avengers, but that’s just borderline insaniquarium. Calling it “Baby Avengers,” however, would be doing the film a disservice. It is what it is: two hours of top-notch popcorn fun that’s quickly forgotten as soon as the credits roll (or in this case, the conclusion of the crazy post-credits scene).

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Iron Man 3 (2013) (3D)

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The first Iron Man was an instant classic and one of the best superhero movies of all time. The sequel, Iron Man 2, bombed because it thought it could just take the successful template of the first film and make it bigger and louder (like what Michael Bay did for the Transformers franchise). So it’s great to see that the producers learned their lesson and turned Iron Man 3 into a home run. It’s everything fans could have asked for in a third installment – sufficient familiarity but also enough creativity and innovation to make it a completely different experience.

Iron Man 3 takes place after the events depicted in The Avengers (for those living under a rock, that’s the one with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk) and has Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), battling demons from that bizarre alien experience. Mysterious terrorist attacks are happening in the US thanks to the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a new villain who may or may not be linked to someone from Stark’s past.

It seemed like a cookie-cutter premise from the start, and indeed, Iron Man 3 does take a little bit of time to take off. But once it does, director Shane Black (who also directed Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) takes the audience on a brand new adventure that has plenty of surprises and fresh thrills.

For starters, Iron Man is forced this time to spend a lot of screen time out of his suit, or in only parts of his suit, and must rely on his wit to get him out of dangerous situations. There are also several clever new inventions and ideas that show that the evolution of Iron Man is not just different looking suits, but actual functional improvements.

It’s also fantastic to see Gwyneth Paltrow, who has essentially played the damsel in distress in the first two films as love interest Pepper Pots, get to do some heavy lifting for once. Also taking on a physical, but different kind of role, was Don Cheadle, who provides the biggest laughs as sidekick War Machine, rebranded as the Iron Patriot. Unfortunately, every time I saw Cheadle’s face I was reminded of his dark turn as Captain Planet. Not his fault though.

Rounding out the stellar core cast are three excellent actors – the aforementioned Ben Kinsley, in a role I could imagine few others pulling off; Guy Pearce, also in a role few others could pull off (he plays a total freak geek who turns into a handsome devil; the last three films I saw him in were Lawless, where he plays a menacing eyebrow-less menace; Prometheus, where he plays a shriveled old man; and Lockout, where he plays a suave ex-con-turned-buffed-hero); and Rebecca Hall, in a role many others probably could have played (resurfaced ex-lover) but she excels here because she is so damn lovely.

The action in Iron Man 3 is also different and varied, so you don’t have to worry about seeing the same kind of sequences over and over. I can’t say much more without giving stuff away, but as usual, I urge those who want to see it to stay away from the trailers and gossipers because it will be a real shame to have some of the twists spoiled.

This is not a complaint, but I found it strange that after all that press about the film being co-produced by a Chinese company and that it will contain “Chinese elements”, there ended up being virtually no Chinese references. No scenes set in China. Maybe a Chinese actor in a cameo (can’t remember), but that’s it. Perhaps the “special” version released for Chinese audiences with bonus footage has something arbitrary thrown in for the sake of it.

Anyway, considering how difficult it is to inject freshness into a highly successful franchise, Iron Man 3 really is a very impressive effort all round.

4.25 out of 5

PS: Yes, there is a post-credits scene, though there is no reference to any of the other upcoming Marvel adaptations such as Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

PPS: I really didn’t want to see this film in 3D, but difficulties in acquiring a non-3D ticket on opening weekend forced me to fork out the extra dollars for the discomfort and added vision-obscuring tint. If I haven’t made myself clear, AVOID the 3D version at all costs! It adds absolutely nothing.